Difference between revisions of "Taking the comps"

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# Statistical Mechanics: Sunday August 27
# Statistical Mechanics: Sunday August 27
[[Category: Incoming student portal, PhD requirements, Core courses]]
[[Category: Incoming student portal]][[Category: PhD requirements]][[Category:Core courses]]

Revision as of 18:26, 14 August 2017

The Stony Brook Department of Physics and Astronomy prides itself in its long-standing tradition of offering and demanding four PhD qualifying (comprehensive or placement) exams. These exams have changed quite a lot in the last few decades, and have changed in major ways twice in the last 5 years, so please make sure that when you are studying you study for the current. In their current form, there are four exams, each one corresponding to a core subject: Classical Mechanics, Classical Electrodynamics, Quantum Mechanics, and Statistical Mechanics. Each exam is administered on a different day, all within the same week and each exam lasts for four hours, from 9:00 AM to 1:00 PM on the given date. The qualifying exams can be taken for three different purposes.

Purposes of the comprehensive exam

Master's qualifying exam

Passing all four tests is required for graduating with a no-thesis option masters degree. You are required to answer two out of three questions on all four of the tests at a level of less than half the points for both (the level of passing any level of the comprehensive exams is determined by the faculty every time, so no exact standard is in place).

PhD qualifying exam

Passing three of the four tests at this level plus the last one at the master's level is required before you are eligible for PhD candidacy (typically this is required after the second year of classes). This is like the master's level, but with a higher standard for both questions, with an approximately 51+% score as passing (determined by the faculty each time).

Course placement exam

If you want to get out of the requirement to take any of the four core courses then you either need to prove that you took an equivalent course at a prior school or you need to pass the corresponding test at the placement level. To pass at the placement level you have to answer all three questions at an even higher level than the PhD qualifying exam level.

Should I take the comps in the Fall when I start?


  • If you can't convince the placement committee to place you out but you think you know the material well, you might be able to place out of one of the core courses by taking the comps. (Note however that the exams are much harder to pass at the Placement level than the PhD level.)
  • It's nice to have some of the exams out of the way when you want to be focusing on classes or research, so you think you have a chance at passing it may be worthwhile to try


  • Studying for the comps can take a lot of time you might want to use for getting used to Stony Brook, meeting people, etc.
  • The exams are fairly long and kind of awkwardly timed, which might also interfere with getting adjusted to graduate life.

Which exams to take

Note that if you take the comps you don't have to take all of the exams; it may be better to pick one or two that you're more comfortable with to and focus studying on them

Signing up for the comps

You can sign up for one or more of the comprehensive exams here.

Preparing for the comps

Main article: Comprehensive Exams

Materials compiled by students to prepare for the exams are available on two websites. The SBU comps blog contains several study guides. The PGSA GitHub includes questions and solutions from past comps.

In addition you will be able to take to each exam one sheet (front and back) of handwritten notes.

Official Department Information

The department hosts a website with information regarding the comps, including a compendium of very useful, solved, old comprehensive exams (the relevant ones start in January of 2014 and run until now) as well as a list of relevant topics that should be studied. There are also rules for test taking as well as steps that can be taken to accommodate learning or test-taking peculiarities that you may have - do not allow for any special need that you may have when taking the test to get in the way of your success, the department is required to facilitate and accommodate any needs that you may have.


The Fall 2017 comprehensive exams will take place from 9am to 1pm on the following days:

  1. Classical Mechanics: Wednesday August 23
  2. Classical Electrodynamics: Thursday August 24
  3. Quantum Mechanics: Saturday August 26
  4. Statistical Mechanics: Sunday August 27